Roosevelt had launched America’s war effort with an invasion of North Africa because it offered an easy, safe start. Critics had argued that it committed the US to a broader war strategy—and they proved correct. In 1943, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill convinced Roosevelt that the next target should be Italy. American General George Marshall argued that the Russians still needed to be relieved and therefore the US should launch a large, cross-channel invasion of German-occupied France. But Churchill was anxious to strengthen British interests in the Mediterranean—to ensure that the British, not the Russians, controlled this territory at the end of the war. And Churchill added, for the Allied troops already deployed in North Africa, Italy was just a short hop away. Roosevelt ultimately agreed. The cross-channel invasion would be put on hold for a year while Allied forces prepared to attack Germany through its soft underbelly. They would cross from North Africa into Sicily and from there into Italy.
The Allied invasion of Sicily (Operation Husky) was preceded by a wonderful piece of deception codenamed Operation Mincemeat. The body of a recent pneumonia victim was cast adrift off the Spanish coast by British intelligence officers. Attached to the man’s wrist was a suitcase carrying his identification—“Major William Martin”—and “classified documents” outlining Allied plans for invading Sardinia and other islands in the Mediterranean. To add some spice to the ruse, love letters from Martin’s fiancée Pam were enclosed in the briefcase as well.
After the body was discovered by a Spanish fisherman, it was carried to German authorities. Hitler himself (perhaps more of a romantic than realized) fell hook-line-and-sinker for the water-logged deception and ordered troops diverted to Sardinia. Benito Mussolini, the Italian “Head of Government, Duce of Fascism, and Founder of the Empire,” vehemently disagreed and argued that the Allies’ target was Sicily. But, despite his inflated title, Mussolini was clearly the second banana within the Axis hierarchy, and therefore Hitler’s wishes prevailed.
Even with the diversion of Axis troops, the Allied forces faced considerable obstacles in their attack launched on 10 July. The Italians and Germans held a sizable numerical advantage (350,000 to 180,000) and the Allied landing operation turned into something of a mess. High winds dispersed paratroopers and gliders well outside the intended drop areas; even worse, poor communication led Allied gunners to fire on their own transport ships sinking 23 of the 145.
But on the bright side, despite the landing confusion, Allied paratroopers did succeed in cutting off Axis communications and in securing the beaches for the landing of ground troops. In the campaign that followed, Allied planes enjoyed a 2:1 advantage in the air. And, perhaps most important, the Italian army was dispirited by 1943 and not very interested in a fight to the death.
Therefore, once the Allied forces had landed, they were able to advance with relative speed across the island. The more battle-tested British troops were assigned the tougher course along the eastern side of the island. American divisions paralleled them to the west. Within two weeks they were converging on the north of the island and sweeping all Axis troops before them.
Faced within imminent defeat, Germany and Italy attempted to evacuate their armies to the mainland, but only the Germans were very successful. Both managed to remove more than 50,000 men before the Allies reached Messina on 17 August—but the Italians were forced to abandon more than 135,000 men who were quickly taken prisoner by the Allied forces.
The Italians lost more than a large part of their army in the Allied invasion of Sicily. In the middle of the campaign, the Italian Grand Council dumped Mussolini and formed a new government under Pietro Badoglio. Badoglio would immediately reach out to the Allies and, on 3 September, agree to terms for a cease-fire.